In 1987, exceptional Bordeaux reds from the 1950s were available for purchase at what today can only be called insane prices. Insane because, as opposed to the cutthroat expense of such wines today, nobody was very interested! I was buying collectible Bordeaux classics with decades of bottle age on them (something required for these wines to truly strut their stuff) for the price of a decent current release California red. The interest in older vintage wines, unless they were among the "master race" of collectibles (Chateau Lafite, Margaux or Romanee Conti), was a negligible and collective ho-hum.
In 1986, as a wine retailer, I began working with local distributors on "clearing" wines into the state—wines that distributors had no interest in promoting themselves. The idea was to buy a few hundred cases of a certain wine and promise to collect it all from the distributor within a 30-90 day period. In return for this quick turnover, the wholesaler would charge the retailer a far lower premium. It was a guarantee from the wine shop that these wines would disappear expeditiously with little fuss or muss.
One of the first wines that I approached in this manner was a new California line produced by the French winemaking team of Jean Claude Boisset: good California chardonnay, cabernet, merlot and sauvignon blanc at very attractive "introductory" pricing. Boisset was trying hard to find a niche for this excellent new venture. The entire program became a huge success for everyone involved. Consumers found delicious wines at prices that were at least one-third lower than comparable choices. Wholesalers made a small percentage of profit, but with such large quantities involved, even at a low mark-up, it still meant good money in the bank. And, as retailers, we had a small, rather exclusive wine to offer the public.
When a Monsieur Chiquet came to visit to thank us for this boost of his company's national presence, I immediately asked him if I could see the entire portfolio of Boisset products. Maybe there was something else that could help us both financially and in reducing Boisset's inventory size. When I first glanced at this list, my entire body swooned, and I did somersaulting double takes when I saw the bonanza within. Sure, Boisset had tons of their new California product, but they also had regional French wines under the Boisset label and dozen upon dozens of older Bordeaux reds and dessert whites. These older wines were literally gathering dust in their warehouses with seemingly nobody terribly interested.
Here's an example I'll never forget: A magnum of 1950 Chateau Pontet-Canet that I could sell for $40. Not only was this a good vintage, but Pontet-Canet was, and remains, a very prestigious "classified growth." A wine so good that it was voted among the few dozen best Bordeaux reds in the seminal 1855 classification of such wines. (Today, the name of Pontet-Canet is even more highly regarded as improvements to the cellars, equipment, vineyards and production standards have made it collectible indeed.) The current 2004 release is $60 for a regular 750-ml. bottle. It will need to be held at least a decade before showing its pedigree. In 1987, here was a 27-year-old magnum that I could sell at a terrific price and make a fair, but not greedy, profit for myself. What really mattered is that an aficionado could readily see that paying $20 a bottle for a ready to drink classified growth was a veritable steal.
I ordered a large percentage of these wines from 1950, '52, '53 and '55, all good to outstanding vintage years, and sold them for great prices. There were also older bottles of Sauternes, that rare, golden, deliciously honeyed elixir (which also needs bottle age), at the same kind of marvelous pricing.
Here are some interesting examples of what I bought, sold it for and the approximate price one could expect to pay today based on current retail and/or auction prices:
I wonder if any of my customers cellared any of these wines further? I doubt it, because scarcely anyone could conceive of the ravenous escalation in the value of older vintages. Today, speculators from the Middle East, China, Japan and India, enticed by influential wine magazines and newsletters over the past 20 years, have caused this crazy bidding escalation. In the mid-1980s, even a highly collectable wine such as La Mission Haut Brion garnered an affordable price. Who is ever going to taste older vintages of it now, let alone the brand new release ($150 in the good, not great 2004 vintage), at the outset? People often don't believe me when I tell such tales—old fart, failing memory, whatever! But I've got it all written down. The moldy oldies of yesteryear, at fair pricing, are a thing of ancient history, if 20 years can be called ancient. In the wine business it can.
Now, here's the scary part of this tale. I was looking to buy "first growth" Bordeaux bottlings (the eight crème de la crème properties of Bordeaux) 20-some years ago in order to lay them down and age properly. The mid-1980s, some will remember, was when the dollar was hot and worth 10 francs! Thus my home cellar, which once held gems from 1982 and '83, were bought with that strong dollar. A bottle of 1982 Chateaux Latour first growth Bordeaux red is now selling for about $1,100 a bottle. I paid $40 in 1985. Most importantly, the idea of my bottle not being authentic never crossed my, or anyone else's, mind.
Fraud never reared it's ugly head back then because, where was the profit motive? If one could buy one of the arguably best wines in the world for $40, where was the incentive to commit fraud? Now, with new releases of first growths costing $500 to more than $1,000 a bottle, the market is ripe for unscrupulous knock-offs. Phony cases of wines that sell for thousands of dollars pop up with regularity. Someone grabs a hold of an empty case and bottle from a previous vintage, makes perfect copies of each and pawns them off to unaware or unscrupulous wholesalers or retailers. Even the capsules and the cork underneath are copied well, although people might only become aware of a fake cork after it's been removed.
The rich public is so rich and so gullible now; think of those who mindlessly snap up boxes of phony Cuban cigars even when they know the chances of fraud are great. Many people will pay anything to get the status of collectable wine ownership, and the counterfeiters are banking that they will drink these supposed treasures and not have the palate to realize they are tasting a modest value wine that they've plunked down a fortune to obtain. And counterfeiting is just as rampant on the oldies as well. Fake, made-to-look-aged labels are attached to some plonk and sold for tens of thousands of dollars. Certain "wines of the century" (1947 Chateau Cheval Blanc comes to mind) enter the market to create a vinous nightmare. After all, how many genuine 1947 Chateau Cheval Blanc bottles can actually be left—and stored properly? These wines will soon need a document of authenticity from the wineries themselves—something that often cannot be provided.
And so, the nouveau riche millionaire athletes, dot-com creators and social-climbing business people of all backgrounds bid away with little or no concern about price. One trend is that newly built, luxury homes come equipped with wine cellars. The new tenants are anxious to fill up the space with whatever wine—so long as the finished space looks good. Recently, as reported in The Wall Street Journal, a wine consultant earned a cool $50,000 for helping fill up television producer Alan Bursteen's 420-bottle collection. "A wine cellar looks better filled up," exclaimed Mr. Bursteen. (Note to readers: I charge less to provide such a service!) Like many toys of the rich and famous, part of the thrill is just owning it, not drinking it. At least you can amaze passersby in a SuperAmerica Ferrari, or a 90-foot Hargrave Cheoy Lee yacht; but an old bottle of murky liquid with a moldy label? Where are the bragging rights?
As I've said on more than one occasion, I pity the 25-year-old wine enthusiast of today, dying to accrue knowledge but not having the slightest ability to afford the luxury—or semi-luxury—bottlings of this world. This was very doable in the '70s and well into the '80s. Today, it's a dream with very little chance of ever being realized.Paris when it sizzles
Decanter.com, the Web site of Britain's venerable wine magazine, showed its youthful tongue in cheek on the morning of April 1 by announcing "Paris Hilton to be new face of Bordeaux" to its unsuspecting readership. Early morning grogginess may explain why some readers took this to be in dead earnest, but the famed Brit wit surely burnt brightly on this one. Kudos for keeping humor on the front burner of our seemingly ever growing seriousness and (The Importance of Being) earnestness in confronting one of life's great gifts. (Wine, not Paris!)
Arturo Ciompi's Wine Beat column appears the second Wednesday of the month. Send comments, suggestions, kudos or complaints to firstname.lastname@example.org.